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The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby: Part Five: A Book Review

Updated on December 14, 2016
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


The Role of Fundamentalist Religion

When we are finished this series of essays, you will see how all the arrows point to RACE. At any rate, Mrs. Jacoby gives a lot of space, in her book, to the role of fundamentalist religion in the dumbing down of the United States of America, by directly (in terms of its own doctrine) and indirectly (in terms of providing fertile ground for other fanciful beliefs) promoting what she calls "anti-rationalism." She defines anti-rationalism as the possession of beliefs which are not subject to evidentiary challenge.

It is easy enough to agree. After all, fundamentalism, of any kind, shuts off thinking and discussion. It makes life a lot easier (if not more authentic) when all you have to do is consider every word of the Bible literally true.

Jacoby is particularly disturbed by the role of fundamentalist Christianity in promoting, what she sees as America's unique (among the industrialized nations) and singular ignorance and rejection of evolution---even God-aided evolution.

Jacoby writes: "... Americans are alone in the developed world in their view of evolution by means of natural selection as 'controversial' rather than settled mainstream science. The continuing strength of religious fundamentalism in America (again, unique in the developed world) is generally cited as the sole reason for the bizarre persistence of anti-evolutionism" (1).

Let me pause right here to say that Jacoby does not see religious fundamentalism as the sole cause of anti-evolutionism in America. But there is a role for it, since, as she says, American culture is remarkably resistant to the idea of even God-aided evolution (2), which, presumably, would not pose a problem for religious liberalism.

She feels that the "real and more complex explanation" may lie in America's fragmented public education system, which leaves Americans uniquely ignorant about some basic facts about science. Susan Jacoby compares the fragmented public education system unfavorably to that of Italy, for example. She points out that Italy has a system of unified national standards.

What this means is that young people from various provinces, whatever their "cultural differences" might be, they are sure to be taught the identical facts about science.

It is beyond the scope of this series of essays, as it was beyond the scope of Mrs. Jacoby's study, to think about why it is that fundamentalism is so strong in the United States of America, or why it is that our public education system is set up in the fragmentary fashion that it is. Although one partial explanation for the fragmentary nature of the American public education system may have something to do with the legacy of this country's Civil War of the 1860s. Revisionist Southern ideology saw actively sought to prevent the South's assimilation into the Northern way of doing things.

Under this ideology the South saw itself as holding on to its culture, as a matter of pride. Just because they had lost the shooting war, they were determined to hang on to what they considered to be their unique identity. They began to promote what would become known as a "state's rights" public policy agenda, based on the self-determination of states as it pertained to social policy in the broad sense, but initially, at least, race policy specifically.

This state's rights stance obviously had implications for public education. Republicans promote vouchers and family "choice." Both parties, at this point, probably think of national standards as socialistic.

To return to the matter of religious fundamentalism, those of you who have followed this series from the first installment, may recall my notion of "the stock market of ideas." Under this concept the number of committed, "bone-deep" fundamentalists are most likely multiple times less than the total number of self-identifying fundamentalists.

Remember, nobody has time to develop "bone-deep" convictions about all the ideas that they come in contact with. Some of the ideas that one traffics in are the result of her purchase of "idea-stock." We "buy" this idea-stock because we believe it has social value for us on our jobs, in the communities in which we live, with our personal and professional contacts, and so on.

Remember, there is nothing necessarily "fake" or "phony" about our ownership of idea-stock. As we hold on to it, over a long period of time, certain "habits of mind and heart" become ingrained upon our psyches; and this comes to look a lot like "belief" in the bone-deep sense.

Does that make sense?


The question is, then: What drives the core and thus animates the total community of self-identifying fundamentalist Christians in America?

Do you follow me?

What I want to say, here, is that race does play a role in the way religion developed in America and the way ideas about evolution were processed in the society. There is even a political relevance of the race-guided development of religion, anti-evolutionism to chapter four of Susan Jacoby's book: Chapter Four---Reds, Pinkos, Fellow Travelers.

Race and Religion

The historian Winthrop D. Jordan has pointed out the contradiction and ambiguity that attended the Englishmen's initial contact with black Africans. Christianity made Englishmen both think of Africans as a people very much like themselves; and that the Africans were very much a people apart (3).

Dr. Jordan wrote: "The emphasis on similarity derived directly from the emphatic Christian doctrine which affirmed that mankind was one. The Old Testament, most notably the book of Genesis, seemed absolutely firm on this point: all men derived from the same act of creation and had at first shared a common experience. So too the New Testament declared all nations to be one blood" (4).

What's interesting is that a number of English travelers in Africa had claimed to have discovered rudiments of the Word among "even the most barbarous of heathens.' For example, in 1623 Richard Jobson claimed to have discovered a reference to the 'leviticall law,' as in the Bible. There was talk of Adam and Eve, 'whom they call Adama and Evahaha,' Noah's flood, Moses, 'with many other things our sacred history makes mention of' (5).

Another commentator spoke of a kind of covert Calvinism in the jungle. 'They keep their Fetissoes [Fetish] day, one day in seven, and that Tuesday (a Sabbath it seems natural)) more solemnly and stricktly than the Hollanders do their Sunday' (6).

Stay with me.

"At the same time," Dr. Jordan wrote, "Christianity mitigated against the unity of man. Because Englishmen were not Christians, heathenism in Negroes was a fundamental defect which set them apart. However much they disapproved of Popery and Mohametanism, they were accustomed to these perversions. Yet they were not accustomed to dealing face to face with people who appeared, so far as many travelers could tell, to have no religion at all" (7).

It seems to me---as I interpret Dr. Jordan's interpretation---that English travelers to Africa, in the seventeenth century, concluded that "proper religious instruction," later to be called "education," was basically "wasted" on the black African. I think that to the English traveler in the seventeenth century, the fact of surviving fragments of Christianity in the jungle were precisely proof of this.

It is as if the English came to a conclusion like this: "Someone tried to give the black African proper instruction, but their savagery was too potent for it to adhere."

For many people, this idea of "instruction" as being "wasted" on black people, may have resonance for our times, here in the United States. As you know, there are social commentators who will tell you that the American public education is, perhaps, more racially segregated than it has ever been despite Brown V. the Board of Education, which held that separate was most certainly not equal.

As you also know, schools which are attended primarily by black and brown students, are basically the poorest in funding and resources. They tend to get the least qualified teachers as well. What I'm saying is that this discrepancy echoes the seventeenth century English dismissal of black Africans as something less than equal to themselves, in God's sight, because of what the English saw as the poor penetration of proper religious instruction into the jungle.

And so, as it pertains to the discrepancies in the quality of education available to black, brown, and white students, in the K-12 ranks in the United States, it is as if some decision was made not to waste too many resources on Those people since they don't learn very well, anyway.

Are you still with me? Does that make sense? I'm saying that the very long legacy of racism might have something to do with what Susan Jacoby sees as America's fragmented public education system.




What does the American rejection of evolution (even God-aided evolution) has to do with America's long legacy of racism? Just hang on.

Again, Dr. Winthrop D. Jordan wrote: "It was a strange and eventually tragic happenstance of nature that the Negro's homeland was the habitat of the animal which in appearance resembles man" (8).

Dr. Jordan again: "The animal called 'orang -- outang' by contemporaries (actually the chimpanzee) was native to those parts of western Africa where the early slave trade was heavily concentrated. Though Englishmen were acquainted (for the most part vicariously) with monkeys and baboons, they were unfamiliar with tailless apes who walked about like men. Accordingly, it happened that Englishmen were introduced to the anthropoid apes and to Negroes at the same time and in the same place. The startlingly human appearance and movements of the 'ape' --- a generic term though often used as a synonym for the 'orang outang' --- aroused some curious speculations" (9).

What were those "curious speculations"?

Dr. Jordan: "A few commentators went so far as to suggest that Negroes had sprang from the generation of ape-kind or that apes were themselves the offspring of Negroes and some unknown African beast" (10).

Why did these commentators think such a thing. Because, as Dr. Winthrop D. Jordan explains: "The inner logic of this association derived from uneasiness concerning the ape's 'indecent likeness and imitation of man;' it revolved around evil and sexual sin; and, rather tenuously, it connected apes with baldness" (11).

What was this "sexual sin"? Well, it concerned "the notion that there sometimes occurred a 'beastly copulation or conjuncture' between apes and Negroes, and especially that apes were inclined to wantonly to attack Negro women" (12).

Why did English travelers think that black Africans were having sex with apes? The English, certainly, never witnessed such a thing. How then did such an idea come into their heads?

The short and ultimately unsatisfying answer is this: You have to remember how geographical study was done centuries and thousands of years ago. Part of it concerned character. It was thought that a people's environment was reflective of the character of the people; so that people, basically, "deserved" the environment they lived in, whatever its conditions.

What does all of this have to do with evolution and the fear of political subversion?

Stay with me.

Dr. Winthrop D. Jordan wrote: "Medieval bestiaries contained rosters of strange creatures who in one way or another seemed disturbingly to resemble men. There was the simian and the cynocephali and the satyi and the others, all variously described and related to one another, all jumbled in a characteristic amalgam of ancient reports and medieval morality. The confusion was not easily nor rapidly dispelled, and many of the traditions established by this literature were very much alive during the seventeenth century" (13).

Jordan explained that a book by Edward Topsell---Historie of Foure-footed Beastes (1637)---set the tone for the way Englishmen would perceive black Africans. It seems that he built upon the work of Swiss naturalist Konrad von Gesner, who had been careful to distinguish tailless apes from monkeys (14).

Dr. Jordan: "In a not altogether successful attempt to distinguish the 'satyre-apes' from the mythical creatures of that name,' Topsell straightened everything out by explaining that it was 'probable that Devils take not any daenomination or shape from satyres, but rather the Apes themselves from Devils whome they resemble, for there are many things common to the satyre-apes and devilish satyres'" (15).

Note that! Topsell said that it was probable that 'Devils' did not take their form from 'satyres,' but rather that the 'Apes themselves' took their form from the Devils they look like.

Here's how I interpret that. As I interpret Dr. Jordan's interpretation and read between the lines, I come up with this: The seventeenth century English thought that the 'tailless monkeys,' chimpanzees that were disturbingly like men in their appearance and movement, were demon-manufactured simulacra designed to do a "psy-op" on humanity by physically mocking them, perhaps in prelude to a massive demonic invasion of the Earth.

If that interpretation is correct, then it follows that what we have hear is the English fear of black people, as a soft point of entry for sinister forces bent upon world domination. This fear was also reflected in the U.S. government's "Cointelpro" operations of the 1960s and 1970s.

Cointelpro was a FBI surveillance operation which targeted black civil rights organizations in the 1960s and 1970s. The operative fear seems to have been that African-Americans were a soft point of entry for the sinister forces of Soviet Communism, "bent on world domination," and so forth.

Does that make sense?

What about evolution?

To the American white supremacist mind---those white Americans who are actually racist---the thought of associating their humanity with apes is intolerable. It is intolerable to the subconscious of the white supremacist mind because to make such an association, would be to associate their humanity with black people, whom they feel to be a soft point of entry for sinister forces.

In other words, to the American white supremacist mind (on the subconscious level), say 'evolution' and it thinks 'apes'/black people. By the way, can there be any more convincing evidence of this than the cartoon that ran when President Obama was negotiating his economic stimulus bill?


The New York Post ran a cartoon of two uniformed police officers shooting a chimpanzee to death. The caption beneath says: "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."

Say 'evolution' to the American white supremacist mind and it thinks 'ape'/black people, 'tailles ape'/agent of Hell, blacks/in league with demon world against "US."

The American white supremacist mind would not go through these recollections on a conscious level; but I think it does so on a forgotten, subconscious level.

We still have a lot to do. See you in part six.

Thank you for reading!


1. Jacoby, Susan. The Age of American Unreason. Pantheon Books, 2008. xvii

2. ibid, 22

3. Jordan, Winthrop D. White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro 1550-1812. University of North Carolina Press, 1968. 22

4. ibid

5. ibid, 22-23

6. ibid, 23

7. ibid

8. ibid, 28-29

9. ibid, 29

10. ibid, 30-31

11. ibid, 30

12. ibid, 31

13. ibid, 29

14. ibid, 29-30

15. ibid, 30


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